Short Story
                                                             The Balloon
                                                                                     By Jim Mountfield


     Jack tried to act like a tourist while he explored the temples.  Like a proper tourist, one who stopped and took
pictures of the sculptures and ruins and pretty views.  As opposed to a tourist who was interested only in the local
children.  

     So he constantly paused and raised his camera.  He snapped the stone faces that smiled through the
vegetation, their features eroded by rain and crusted in guano.  He snapped the stone-paved terraces that were
lined with broken pillars and criss-crossed by giant tree roots.  And he snapped the tiered stone pyramids that were
shrouded in creepers and had dizzyingly
-steep flights of steps climbing their sides.  

     He’d need a lot of touristy pictures when he arrived home.  The police would want to see his holiday photos.  
Jack knew this because of an email he’d received that morning from Lawrence, a man whom he’d met face-to-face
only twice before.  Mainly Lawrence’s email had talked about the weather – it was raining a lot in England at the
moment – a topic that he’d never mentioned during their two face-to-face meetings or their previous online
correspondence.  However, Jack and Lawrence had an agreement.  If one of them discovered that the police were
on his trail, he’d warn the other using a coded email that blabbed innocuously about the rain, or snow, or sunshine.

     Then Jack had checked the news on the BBC.  The police were questioning four men in connection with a
suspected child-abuse ring.  He suspected these men were other members of his ring, although unlike Lawrence,
he’d only ever dealt with those members online.  Therefore, he could expect trouble when he returned home from
this holiday.

     The crumbling, guano-splattered faces around him became annoying.  Some seemed to leer at him, as if
saying, “Cheer up, Jack.  You’re on holiday.  Forget the cops.  Enjoy yourself while you can.  Make the most of that
kiddie-flesh around you!”  Others seemed to scowl at him in loathing.  Their message was, “Pedophile scum!  You’ll
get what’s coming to you!”  

     He was relieved when he entered what seemed to be an older temple.  He found himself in a passageway whose
stonework had no sculpted faces.  There were only patterns – systems of whorls, knots and spirals that’d been
engraved there centuries, if not millennia ago.

     But then the passageway was invaded.  From the end he was walking towards came a crowd of East Asian
people in smart-casual clothes.  Some wore Velcro-strapped sun visors and nearly all wielded smart-phones or
digital cameras.  He guessed that a coach had lately pulled up in the parking lot and disgorged a party of Korean
tourists.  One of them, a girl, approached him.  Using sign language, she indicated that she wanted him to take her
smart-phone and photograph her standing in an alcove in the passageway-wall where the carvings were particularly
elaborate.  Jack sized her up.  She was 15 or 16.  Too mature for him.

     The girl made a cutesy pose and raised two fingers in a peace sign.  He smiled – a kindly, avuncular smile he’d
perfected long ago – and took her picture with the smart-phone.  The back of the alcove had an opening that
looked out into a courtyard and this created a square of light within the square of the phone-screen.  And
momentarily on the screen, through the opening, in the courtyard, he saw a child.  A proper child.  One he’d be
interested in –

     A gurgling sound came from the flagstones below them and the girl squealed and hopped out of the alcove,
almost into his arms.  Jack looked down and saw a narrow drainage channel running along the passageway-wall,
across the front of the alcove.  The gurgle emanated from that.  Then, equally abruptly, it stopped.  When he
looked up again, he realized that the child had disappeared from the courtyard.

     The girl composed herself.  Looking embarrassed, she took the smart-phone from him and mumbled her thanks
in Korean.  Jack resumed walking and was soon clear of the tourists.  He wondered how water could’ve suddenly
coursed through the drainage channel when it wasn’t raining outside.  Did the temple have a toilet that someone
had just flushed?

     He left the passageway, turned and came into the courtyard where he’d spotted the child.  It had flagstones too,
the grid formed by their edges sprouting weeds and flowers.  On three sides of it were vine-draped walls.  Standing
on the fourth side was another of the tiered pyramids, also cloaked in vines and leaves.  The courtyard was
deserted.  Disappointed, but relieved too because he knew for the rest of this trip he had to behave himself, he
turned away.  

     Then, from the corner of his eye, he noticed movement and he turned back again.

     He’d been mistaken.  The child was there – a perfect, beautiful, brown-skinned, black-haired child, barefoot,
wearing white shorts and a baggy white shirt.  He, or possibly she, was standing in front of the pyramid and peering
up its steps.  The steps looked difficult to climb and not only because they were treacherously slathered with
foliage.  Each step was a couple of feet high, so that the child was unable to clamber onto even the lowest one.  

     The child reached upwards.  Jack followed the direction of the little arm and saw a round pale thing on the sixth
step up, bobbing slightly and shimmering in the sun.  A shiny white balloon.  He realized the child had been holding
a balloon but had accidentally let go of its string.  It’d landed on the steps, far too high for the child to get to.

     He told himself: I should walk away now.  But even as he thought that, he found himself putting on his avuncular
smile again and walking towards the child, balloon and pyramid-steps.  He arrived beside the child and said, “Hold
on.  I’ll go up there and get it for you.”

     He resisted the temptation to pat the child on his – or her – black tresses.  Instead, he stood on tiptoe and
swung up one leg and managed to get it onto the first step.  Then he heaved the rest of himself up.  He repeated
the action for the next five steps.  At one point he almost slipped and fell back on a tangle of vines and leaves that
looked like they were anchored to a surface, but weren’t.  Finally he got to the step where the balloon was.  He
paused for a moment, oozing with sweat, gasping for breath.  His wet skin prickled in the sun.  He looked down and
admired the glorious child again.  Then he turned and picked up the balloon.

     It wasn’t, he realized, a balloon.

     When it was in his hands, he discovered that its surface wasn’t solid – not even in the soft pudgy way that a
balloon was solid.  Rather, his hands sank through its surface, as if it a ball of white goo that somehow had enough
of its own gravity to remain a ball once it was raised from the ground.  Jack’s hands sank into it to their wrists.  He
stared in at them, visible inside the ball as two dark splayed shapes.  And yet, even while this strange spherical
thing wobbled on the ends of his wrists, he was distracted by a sight in the courtyard below.  

Without warning, the child became a shimmer of light that dissolved into nothing and left the courtyard empty.  The
shimmer was similar to the shimmering quality possessed by the skin, the barely-tangible skin, of the thing he was
supposed to be holding.

     Then the pain began as his hands dissolved too.  

     Jack screamed.  Within the whiteness, his hands shrivelled.  His fingers became fleshless twigs of bone and
then those disintegrated too.  Simultaneously, the round white thing expanded and surged along his arms, towards
his elbows and then his shoulders.  Jack waved his arms in front of him, trying to dislodge it, but it clung on
tenaciously – and voraciously.  It grew.  His arms were consumed.  His attacker lost its whiteness and became a
swirling pink, which then darkened into red.

     The ball, now a red mass, flopped around his shoulders, chest and head.  Jack experienced a final moment of
agony as his face passed through its membrane and the acidic enzymes within immediately burned the skin and
tissue from his skull.  Then, as the front of the skull dissolved too and those vicious enzymes flooded into his brain
cavity, the agony ceased.

     Jack collapsed onto the step.  The predator swelled further, swallowing his stomach, hips, legs and feet.  By now
it resembled a giant crimson jellyfish.  The sun glistened on its membrane, its rays unable to penetrate it and
reflecting elsewhere.  This was similar to how the thoughts and desires of its prey would reflect off it too – creating
seemingly-physical forms in its proximity.  These unreal images, these phantoms, served to lure its prey closer to it.  
To within striking distance.

     Amid its redness, the last dark spindles of Jack’s body melted away.  Then it sensed it was time to hide again
and it shed what solidity it had.  It stopped being a doughy red mass and became a red liquid that seeped down the
steps until it located a runnel leading to a hole in a step-corner.  With a gurgling sound, it flowed through the hole.  
It continued downwards, then horizontally, then downwards again.  It passed through a network of channels and
shafts that riddled the complex of temples until it entered the dark earth beneath their foundations.

     Those foundations had been laid by the earliest humans in the area, in preparation for the site’s very first
temple – one built to venerate, and worship, and hopefully appease the being that terrified them most.  That first
temple had been overshadowed by bigger temples built by later generations, who’d worshipped more civilized and
more humanoid deities.  

     But the original god had never abandoned the original temple.
About Jim Mountfield
Jim Mountfield was born in
Northern Ireland, was
educated in Scotland and
currently lives in Sri Lanka.  
His work has appeared,
sometimes under
pseudonyms, in Death
Head's Grin, the Dream
Zone, Flashes in the Dark,
Hellfire Crossroads, the
Horror Zine, Hungur,
Legend, Roadworks and
Sorcerous Signals.
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